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Nearly one year ago, Tennessee school districts warned thousands of parents that because of a new state law, third grade students could be held back a year if they are not reading on grade level by spring.

The law — which created “a little bit of a firestorm” according to one of its legislative co-sponsors — was seen by supporters as a necessary step to address lagging literacy rates in the state. Concerned parents and school staff flocked to community meetings and legislative sessions to speak out against it.

But of the roughly 44,000 third grade students who scored low enough to be at risk of retention, just under 900 students, or 1.2 percent of all third graders who took the test, were actually held back because of their reading scores. That’s similar to retention rates in previous years — a report from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance shows that around 1 percent of third graders were held back each school year between 2010 to 2020.

Tennessee’s law was modeled after a much-praised literacy program in neighboring Mississippi that includes tutoring, improved literacy training for teachers and a retention policy for third graders who don’t pass its state test. Mississippi held back 8 percent of third graders in 2015, the first year its retention policy was in place. That includes some students held back for other reasons.  

Tennessee’s reading retention law includes summer school and other support for children with low scores on the state’s reading test. About 900 students statewide will be held back because of their performance on the test. Credit: Lily Estella Thompson for The Hechinger Report

So, what happened in Tennessee?

By the end of spring 2023, about 40 percent of third graders achieved a “met expectations” or “exceeded expectations” score on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP. That was a higher passing rate than previous years, but 60 percent of third grade students were still set to be held back because they scored in the “below expectations” or “approaching expectations” range.

However, the law was written to offer several escape hatches for students with low scores.

About 24 percent of all third graders who took the test this spring were exempt from retention because they either had a disability, were an English language learner with less than two years of English instruction, were previously retained or “met other exemptions determined locally,” according to the state’s report.

An additional 10 percent of students were granted a waiver because their parents appealed.

Related: Tennessee law could hold back thousands of third graders in bid to help kids recover from the pandemic

Just under 5 percent of students re-took the test and earned a passing grade. About 2 percent of students scored “approaching expectations” on the test, attended summer school and showed “adequate growth” by the end of the summer.

That leaves more than 12,000 students, or just under 17 percent, who were promoted to fourth grade but are required to receive high-dosage tutoring throughout the year. For these students, the threat of retention still looms.

The law says students who are promoted but required to attend tutoring could still be held back in fourth grade if they do not pass the reading portion of the test or show “adequate growth” by the end of the year.

“For those 12,000 students, the story is not over,” said Breanna Sommers, a policy analyst with The Education Trust in Tennessee.

The definition of “adequate growth” is a complicated formula that includes student’s TCAP scores and the probability that they’ll reach proficiency by 10th grade. During a recent meeting of the Tennessee Board of Education, the department said they are projecting 5,000 to 6,000 fourth grade students will be held back this year.

Literacy coach Melissa Knapp works in a first grade classroom at Harpeth Valley Elementary in Nashville. Some experts feared Tennessee’s new law to support struggling readers might hold back thousands of students, but only around 900 have been retained this year. Credit: Lily Estella Thompson for The Hechinger Report

In Metro Nashville Public Schools, 77 third graders — or 1.4 percent — were held back last school year when the law went into effect. In the five prior years, the district only held back between one and 10 third graders a year. Nearly 1,200 fourth grade students in the district are required to get tutoring interventions this year.

To fill the demand, the district is providing teachers with a stipend to tutor students during their planning periods. Metro Nashville Public Schools has also hired full- and part-time tutors and contracted with an online tutoring service called Varsity Tutors.

Sonya Thomas, co-founder of the parent advocacy group Nashville PROPEL and a supporter of the law, said Tennessee’s renewed focus on reading was a long time coming, though her own children are now too old to benefit from it.

“It’s one of the strongest literacy packages that this state has ever put into place,” Thomas said. “I’m excited about the momentum that it’s going to create in the state.”

Related: Third graders struggling the most to recover in reading after the pandemic

But she’s still concerned that most children did not pass the reading portion of the third grade test this spring.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going in the right direction, it’s just a matter of the quality of instruction and the quality of interventions that need to be given to children with a sense of urgency. We should not have to wait until third grade to know whether a child is going to pass or fail,” Thomas said.

Studies on the impact of retaining students are generally mixed, but the practice is more successful with younger students and when it is coupled with resources and support aimed at helping students catch up.

Education analysts are still studying the effects of Tennessee’s law — the state has not released demographic data on who makes up the 1.2 percent of third graders held back or the more than 12,000 fourth graders who could be held back this spring. Research on retention laws in other states indicates Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be retained.

“We all share a common goal of wanting our kids to read on grade level. We definitely want to maintain high expectations and know that our students can exceed and reach those. And we still believe that retention is a high-stakes intervention that should only be used in very limited cases in which it’s paired with extensive support,” said Sommers, the Education Trust analyst. “We’re looking forward to more long-term outcome impact data to see. We’ll be really excited if the tutoring was impactful or if summer camp was impactful.”

This story about grade-level reading was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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